Skip to content

Obesity Rising America—Signs You Have the Disease

Doctors explain why obesity is on the rise and how to help prevent the disease.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Obesity is a global problem that has nearly tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization. "In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 650 million were obese." In the United States, obesity has been a health concern for quite some time, and it's getting worse. A report released in 2022 by the Trust for America's Health finds the adult obesity rate for the U.S is at 41.9 percent from 2017-2020. In addition, "Nineteen states have adult obesity rates over 35 percent.  West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama have the highest rate of adult obesity at 40.6 percent, 40.3 percent, and 39.9 percent, respectively. The District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Colorado had the lowest adult obesity rates at 24.7 percent, 25 percent, and 25.1 percent respectively."

But it's not just adults. Kids are also affected by the disease and the report says, the national youth obesity rate from 2017–2020: is at 19.7 percent. "The continued increase in rates of obesity across all population groups is alarming," said J. Nadine Gracia, M.D., MSCE, President and CEO of Trust for America's Health. "Policies and programs to reduce obesity need to be implemented at a systems level. We must advance policies that address the community, institutional, and structural factors that are barriers to healthy eating and physical activity and that exacerbate health inequities."

Obesity is a deadly disease and anyone is at risk, although certain communities are affected greater. "Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese," WHO states. "Once associated with high-income countries, obesity is now also prevalent in low- and middle-income countries." Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with experts who share what to know about obesity and how to help prevent it. 


What to Know About Obesity

Nutritionist inspecting a woman's waist using a measuring tape to prescribe a weight loss diet

Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies states, "Obesity is on the rise in many populations worldwide, and people should be aware of the consequences of this chronic disease. It increases a person's risk for various health concerns such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and joint pain. (The World Health Organization, 2021) Excessive weight gain can also affect a person's mental well-being; those who suffer from obesity are more likely to develop depression and anxiety.  To reduce these risks associated with obesity, people should follow a healthy diet with balanced meals, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats. In addition to this nutritional guidance, physical activity is key; those looking to keep their weight in check should strive for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. Taking control of one's lifestyle choices can go a long way in preventing the chronic effects of obesity."

Dr. Ilan Shapiro, chief health correspondent and medical affairs officer of AltaMed Health Services tells us, 'Obesity is something that is a mirror of many difficult things the community has to deal with and suffer from. It comes from mental health and opportunity. The more barriers we have and toxic stress related things around the community, there will be more obesity. Obesity is one of the worst things that we have to contend with. Before obesity was a sign that you were healthy and had enough food to actually have extra pounds. But right now we know that actually creates a ramification of stress, depression, conducive to cancer, problems with asthma, and many other things that are not just weight related. That's why it's important to know that obesity is a sign of change. It's an opportunity for our community to make a difference and have a healthier lifestyle and of course create bridges to improve social dynamics of health in our communities."


Why Obesity is on the Rise

Woman sitting in semi position and listening to her dietician.

Mir Ali, MD, bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA tells us, "The reason for the rise in obesity is multifactorial and cannot be easily explained; biology, genetics, environment and socio-economic status all play a role; more sedentary lifestyle, easy availability of unhealthy foods, lack of education on proper nutrition, all contribute to the obesity epidemic."

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Obesity rates have been increasing steadily and have nearly doubled since the 1980s and are currently at an all-time high. At least 4 million individuals die each year because of being obese according to the World Health Organization. (Emily Laurence, 2023) Many causes contribute to this phenomenon, primarily lifestyle choices such as poor dietary habits and lack of physical activity. With fast food and sugar-filled snacks being more accessible than ever before, it's easy to see why many people might lose sight of what healthy eating looks like. Likewise, in a modern world filled with jobs requiring sitting for long periods or requiring no exercise, regularly getting in some form of physical activity has become quite challenging despite its obvious benefits. As a result, obesity is on the rise–a problem we must tackle head-on if we want to ensure better health outcomes for our population."


Why Obesity Affects Certain Communities More than Others

Obese woman laying on sofa with smartphone eating chips

Dr. Mitchell says, "Obese populations disproportionately affect certain communities more than others due to socioeconomic disadvantage and access to healthy lifestyle choices. When an individual is unable to afford healthy food, they are more likely to rely on cheap fast-food that can lead to obesity.

According to the CDC, U.S. adults who live in rural areas are more likely to have obesity than U.S. adults living in urban areas.  Those in disadvantaged communities often lack access to the basic infrastructure necessary for physical activity such as community parks or a safe environment for running or biking. Socioeconomic disparities then combine with environmental factors to put members of certain communities at higher risk for obesity. With all this considered, it is clear why obesity so disproportionately affects certain communities in our society."


Many Factors Contribute to Obesity

overweight woman at home lying on the floor, laptop in front of her, prepared to work out on mat according to video

Dr. Mitchell says, "Obesity is a serious and growing health concern with many causes behind it. Unhealthy eating habits, such as overconsumption of junk food, processed foods, and refined sugars, are significant factors in obesity. Additionally, decreased physical activity due to more sedentary jobs and lifestyles contribute to this epidemic. Furthermore, certain medications can cause weight gain in some people, notably those experiencing long-term conditions or taking steroid treatments. 

Poor sleep routines are also linked to becoming obese; not getting enough sleep affects the hormones that regulate hunger and can lead to consuming more calories than necessary when trying to replenish energy stores. A combination of these factors can cause significant weight gain for many individuals and communities if left unchecked. We must be aware of possible contributors to unexplained weight gain so that preventative measures can be taken before putting one's health at risk."


Signs of Obesity

Man and woman holding their bellies while sitting on the bed suffering from extra weight.

Dr. Ali says, "Signs of obesity, besides the obvious physical changes, include the onset of obesity-related diseases such as hypertension and diabetes; calculating a patient's body mass index (BMI) is a place to start.  A normal BMI is in the range of 18-25. Someone with a BMI over 30 is defined as obese."

Dr. Mitchell emphasizes, "It is important to recognize any potential signs of obesity early, as this condition can put people at risk for serious health complications. Some standard signals include a body mass index (BMI) higher than 30; an inability to lose weight or gain weight quickly; feeling out of breath after minimal physical activity; excess abdominal fat and skin folds; sleep apnea followed by daytime fatigue; difficulty moving limbs or joints from strain on the body's Musculoskeletal system; and aches and pains in the lower back, knees, and hips caused by excess fat. If you experience any combination of these symptoms, it is recommended that you seek a medical professional's help in developing a treatment plan tailored to your needs."


How to Help Prevent Obesity


To help prevent obesity, Dr. Shapiro says, families need to work together. "As parents we were never taught how to eat or behave. We need to create healthier generations and the best example is us adults. Kids actually learn by what they see, rather than what we tell them. It's important to always be moving, eating better, avoiding sugary drinks and making sure our mental health is on the healthy side. We need to share with our kids that diet, sports, sleeping well and mental health are cornerstones of having a vast amazing and well life." 

Dr. Mitchell says, "One of the best ways to help prevent obesity is to increase physical activity. Spending time outdoors exercising or even taking a brisk walk regularly are great ways to help you maintain a healthy weight. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that children aged 3-5 years must be physically active throughout the day. Children aged 6-17 years need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day and adults need 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week. 

Additionally, eating nutritious, whole foods like fruits and vegetables can provide your body with essential vitamins and minerals that reduce your risk of becoming overweight or obese. Staying hydrated throughout the day by drinking plenty of water is another great way to help your body better regulate its calorie intake. Lastly, taking the time out of each day to practice mindfulness exercises like yoga or meditation can help reduce stress levels and lead to more mindful eating habits, reducing cravings for unhealthy foods. By making these small lifestyle changes, it's possible to help you stay away from obesity and maintain a healthier lifestyle.

As a doctor, I understand that lifestyle choices are not always the leading cause of obesity. Many cases in my practice have been due to hormone imbalances, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome and thyroid conditions or disabilities that limit mobility. This doesn't mean it's an issue of bad habits, but it is something beyond their control – and in some cases, even knowledge. Obesity is far bigger than physical effects, bringing emotional burdens and social pressures. The impact of this can be devastating at an economic level too. As healthcare professionals, we are responsible for ensuring sensitive levels of understanding while treating such conditions and promoting healthy lifestyles where possible."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
Filed Under